Finally, some signs of life from the new administration of Super League.
At 10am on New Years Day came a media release from Super League CEO Robert Elstone and a video on social media featuring the likes of Warrington signing Blake Austin.
For months we’ve heard only rumours of what the former Everton boss was doing. Staff were being poached from the organisation that runs the rest of the sport and from which the clubs partially broke away last year, the Rugby Football League.
For a sport which is very much below the radar in most of the UK and definitely cash-strapped, it’s a risky move to divide the limited resources still more – and to recruit mainly from the body with which you were supposedly so disgruntled.
The one piece of new information in the release was the decision to go to two referees in 2020 – again, in a competition in which getting enough quality officials for six games a weekend can sometimes seem a struggle.
Under UK immigration law officials are not considered elite sportspeople, so recruiting from Australia will be difficult even if there is the requisite money laying around to tempt them. Two referees in 2020 will be a challenge.
There’s also much that was already anticipated. Golden point, time limits on dropouts, scrums and conversions – all the Aussie innovations, since Elstone is an avowed NRL fan.
But more broadly it’s good to see someone trying something. The game in the UK needs a reboot. I’d have liked the RFL to try to keep control over what’s going on, but they have allowed the Super League clubs to lead the game and settled for what’s left.
The RFL has effectively become the middle tier between the elite professional game and the amateur game, running the England team, providing referees and the judiciary and administering the Challenge Cup – which they rely on so much financially that Toronto and Toulouse have been kicked out for fear of them making the final – without having much input into how the sport is marketed in England.
The two bodies will have separate season launches.
As an example of what all this means, I present to you those cool videos that the England team does – easily the best social media for any national team in our sport. The staff responsible? Gone to Super League.
Some new kid is now going to have to get the trust of the players the way the previous social media team did over many years.
I guess this division mirrors that of soccer in England, where the Premier League runs the main competition and loves imports while the FA runs everything else – and the national team probably suffers because of the sheer volume of those imports.
Could we see Super League challenge the current quota on overseas players in the coming years?
More broadly I wish Elstone and Super League well. If you care about the game, you’ve got to hope they succeed. There’s a return to more Sunday matches this year, and I know Salford – who are always looking for a quid – are keen to own that space and create a carnival atmosphere at their games.
But what if it doesn’t work? What if the new rules and the imports like Trent Merrin and Kevin Naiqama don’t make a difference and the game still struggles for an identity in the UK? What if London continue to attract small crowds despite their promotion and not a single rugby league player is recognisable in the capital?
Why not tear everything up and go whole hog with copying the Aussies? Why not have an independent group of individuals oversee the entire sport in this part of the world, taking in all the funding and putting the clubs on a much shorter leash?
The British Rugby League Commission. I like the sound of it.